Lexington artist Henry Faulkner is remembered almost as much for being an outrageous character — a flamboyant gay man who hobnobbed with celebrities and traveled with a pet goat — as for being an artist.
But John Hockensmith hopes his new book will put the focus back on Faulkner’s art. After all, Faulkner’s paintings sold well in his lifetime and have increased in popularity and value in the 36 years since his death, thanks to his masterful use of color and whimsy.
“The Gift of Color: Henry Lawrence Faulkner — Paintings, Poems and Writings” includes images of more than 100 of the Kentucky-born artist’s paintings, plus personal photos, poetry in Faulkner’s handwriting, and a chronological narrative of his development as an artist.
The book is to be published in late January in two versions: A 370-page boxed collector’s edition for $495 and a 290-page bookstore edition for $95. (More info: Finearteditions.net.)
This might be the largest book of Faulkner paintings published so far, but it only scratches the surface. From the 1940s until his death in 1981, Faulkner produced more than 5,000 pieces of art, many with help from longtime assistant Robert Morgan, now a well-known Lexington artist.
Hockensmith, 63, a photographer and gallery owner in Georgetown who knew Faulkner, led a team that produced the book on commission from First Southern National Bank of Stanford. In 2013, the bank bought a 235-piece Faulkner collection from the family of Greene Settle, a Lexington accountant who for more than a dozen years was Faulkner’s patron and business manager.
The Settle collection is the core of the book, but Hockensmith includes pieces from other collections to show Faulkner’s development as an artist over time.
“They’re not all necessarily the best work Henry ever did,” he said. “But they’re the best examples we could lay out in a chronological line.”
Settle and Morgan also had many of Faulkner’s personal papers, including unpublished photographs and handwritten poetry.
“He was not a great poet, but his poetry was sincere,” Hockensmith said. “It really is a window into how he thought and why he would paint like this.”
Settle’s records of Faulkner’s career were helpful to Hockensmith and a team of researchers and writers who put together a narrative of his life and career.
Faulkner was born in 1924 Simpson County, the 10th of 13 children in a poor family. His mother died when he was 2, and Faulkner spent much of his childhood in a Louisville orphanage and a series of foster homes. He finally settled, more or less, with a family in Clay County.
As a young man, he traveled around the country and studied art in Washington, Los Angeles and Cincinnati before settling in Lexington.
During the prime of his career, from the late 1950s through the 1970s, Faulkner lived and painted in Lexington, Italy and south Florida, where he hung out with playwright Tennessee Williams and “Midnight Cowboy” author James Leo Herlihy, and counted among his patrons actors Marlon Brando and Bette Davis.
Hockensmith said he got to know Faulkner in the late 1970s, when he framed some of Faulkner’s paintings, helped milk the goats on his farm, and even tagged along with him to one of socialite Anita Madden’s famous Kentucky Derby parties.
His paintings were popular with collectors and museums, but Faulkner also gained notoriety in Lexington as a cross-dressing blues singer who walked around town with his pet goat, Alice, and lived in an old West Third Street house filled with animals. He was killed Dec. 6, 1981, when a drunk driver struck his car at West Third Street and North Broadway.
Settle’s son, Howard, and his wife, Mickey, hired Hockensmith to photograph the collection in 2006. The book was launched after the bank bought the collection.
“We didn’t deal so much with the salacious tales that are true or not true,” Hockensmith said of the book, contrasting it with a 1988 biography, “The Outrageous Life of Henry Faulkner” by Charles House.
Hockensmith said he thinks much of Faulkner’s flamboyant behavior was intended to attract publicity and sell paintings.
“Henry was a performer, and he picked up on the fact that performance art was working in the galleries,” he said. “He loved his animals, so he started bringing little baby goats to galleries and singing. The times I was around him, it was electrifying. You couldn’t help but be caught in the charisma and want a piece of Henry Faulkner art.”
Faulkner’s work remains popular, with his best paintings now selling for well into five figures. Faulkner was a superb colorist, and Hockensmith said he hopes this book gives more people an appreciation of his work.
“Henry should be much better defined, and not as kook but as an artist,” he said. “He was an amazing talent.”